My first and only writing coach, the esteemed Rich Leder, told me many years ago there’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you don’t know what to write, it’s because you haven’t figured it out yet. And you haven’t figured it out yet because you haven’t spent enough time “butt in chair.”
I fought hard with writer’s block today. I’ve been working on a film about a long-term marriage for a few months now, and I’m back at the beginning. I finally, finally, finally figured out the plot either last week or two weekends ago. Now I’m into the nitty gritty - laying out the story practically by page.
I’m trying something new for myself with this script — it’s a suspense movie. I usually write dramas. Suspense isn’t very different from comedy — it’s basically set-up / punchline, except instead of laughing at the punchline, you feel incredibly worried about what happens next. I am a supreme worrier, and don’t know why only now have I considered writing suspense.
We were taught at The Second City about jokes per page. The higher the joke per page ratio, the better. It doesn’t work quite that way in suspense. Part of what makes suspense so suspenseful is the suspending — those moments that feel like time stands still before the bough breaks and the cradle falls. You want to draw that moment out in time. You want to watch the baby float over the cradle, hovering in mid-air right before that crushing fall. And if you can slow down that crash so that it seems like maybe there’s hope, that maybe the baby will make it, that right before it hits the ground, there is a hand that comes closer and closer to catching it… even more suspense. I’m estimating I need a new, suspenseful event to happen once every 5 minutes or so. I watched the first half of North by Northwest, and that timing seems about right, so I’m going with it.
Funny I should bring up that film because it was actually a lesser known film of his, Rope, that inspired this newest rendition of my marriage movie. Hitchcock called that film a failed experiment. He attempted to film it as close to one-shot as possible, but couldn’t because film reels only held about 10 minutes per reel back then. I understand the motivation for him to film it in one shot, to not let off the gas, to keep the audience wondering if any of the characters will figure out what’s hiding in the box right in front of them.
Since Hitchcock, of all people, “failed” at the experiment, certainly someone the likes of me should take up the mantle and try again, right? The good news is that it’s recorded what he didn’t like, so I won’t make those same mistakes with my film. I’ll probably make different ones.
I suppose first I need a script. And part of that script is figuring out the darned plot point that’s been evading me all day.
It‘s been helpful listening to the writers talk on the MasterClass app. It doesn’t matter how many screenplays I’ve written. Every time I’m writing a new one I’m listening to how other people do it. I often hear writers say in order to write, you need to read. Controversial opinion here: in order to write, you need to listen to how people who write do it. It‘s totally impossible to reverse engineer narrative prose. Sure, you can analyze it and criticize it and armchair quarterback your improved version of events. But you cannot reverse engineer it and know how the author got there.
I couldn’t reverse engineer this blog post for you right now, and I definitely couldn’t reverse engineer any of my scripts, which take months and months to write well. You just can’t learn to write by reading. Read a lot and become a great analyzer. Write a lot, and you’ll at least have a start. I’m looking to write.
Or I will be looking to write once I figure out what happens on page 15 of this darned script! Until then, I’m living in suspense.